I'd like to take time out from my own writing to shine a spotlight on Benjamin James Watson, a fellow burgeoning writer from the Pacific Northwest. Ben's debut book The Boy Who Went Ape (The Blue Sky Press, 2008) is an entertaining tale of a boy whose behavior is generally so bad that his teacher does not notice when a chimpanzee takes his place during a field trip. The main character's name is also Benjamin. Coincidence? I think not.
Originally from Port Townsend, Washington, Ben now resides in Victoria, B.C. with his wife Amy where he's working on his novel and posting true confessions about his days as a children's picture book model on his blog: I, uh, think I killed my muse . But living north of the border didn't stop Ben from traveling stateside to participate in the Tenth Annual Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference. Being a tad short on cash, I found myself living vicariously through Ben's report. He generously took the time to answer my onslaught of questions about his book, the conference, the publishing process, what inspires him to write, and Marla Frazee's excellent table manners.
AB: Congratulations on the publication of The Boy Who Went Ape (The Blue Sky Press, 2008).” My kids and I really enjoyed it. What led you to write this story?
BJW: Thank you very much! I like your kids already. This story started with my editor Bonnie Verburg looking at another story of mine. She had accepted that one but it never made it through the acquisitions committee. So, she asked me if I could write a naughty monkey book for boys. I asked her if she knew who she was talking to. Of course I could! Right up my alley.
The first inspiration and challenge I thought about was Curious George. How does anyone do a proper monkey book, particularly a naughty monkey book and still tell a unique story after those amazing books did it so well? Another source of inspiration for me was Blueberries For Sal and Mark Twain's The Prince and The Pauper. The switcheroo story line. I also wanted to express through my character something about the boy who just can't sit still. Not because he's bad, but because he's a boy who just wants to move and be free, not sit quiet in a chair in a classroom. I sure felt that way at times. At other times I loved school too, so I don't have an agenda against teachers or school at all. I've even spent a little time on the other side of the classroom.
AB: What was the time line between kernel of an idea to publication? Were there any major events along the way?
BJW: Wow. It took a long time. For one, my dad was still finishing up The Night Before Christmas illustrations and then got caught up in all the marketing and mayhem from its success. One week it reached the New York Times Bestseller List, and my dad had included Port Townsend people and places in the book, so locally it really took off. He nearly signed his heiney off. There was also a hook up just before it was being sent to the printers. One of the images showed a bank robber with a tommy gun, who at first, sorta looked like a college student (my dad had used my brother as a model- thanks, Jess!) Right before it was sent to the printer, the Virginia Tech shooting happened. One of the higher ups put on the brakes and said it needed to be changed. That missed the deadline and pushed it back one more year. I think at least four years, but I could be wrong. Maybe a little less.
AB: Were there any challenges (literary, psychological, emotional, psychosocial, logistical, metaphysical- I’m getting carried away here) in bringing it to life?
BJW: Yes, the metaphysical challenges were incredibly difficult. There was a ghost that would unplug my keyboard whenever I walked out of the room. Pesky metaphysical challenges.
AB: What’s it like collaborating with your father? What else has your dad worked on?
BJW: Collaborating with your father is like doing a potato sack race with him. You gotta fall down a lot and skin your knees, learn how to communicate, curse a little, and then you sort it out and start to race. For me it was a special honor to publish my first book with my name right next to my dad's. We had built up to this book with a few practice collaborations; one was a retelling of The Lion and the Mouse. That was our first attempt and we had to learn to trust each other to do our own jobs. That didn't just happen. We had to have some great fights. My dad [Richard Jesse Watson] has published a lot of books for around twenty years. Tom Thumb and The Night Before Christmas were two of his best known in the children's book field. Also, The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Rorious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake book by Nancy Willard, The Dream Stair by Betsy James, The Waterfall's Gift by Joanne Ryder, and his best-selling book, One Wintry Night by Ruth Bell Graham, to name a few.
AB: Last week you were in Portland attending the Tenth Annual Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference. What were you hoping to accomplish there? Can you tell us a bit about the event itself?
BJW: I was hoping to get a better handle on my novel. Mission accomplished! It is a brilliant conference (to use Harry Potter speak) located at the peaceful Reed College in Portland. It is around fifty attendees with around ten faculty. You do the math. And if you're really smart, you stay on campus instead of commute, so you can eat with all the faculty and other writers as well as walk back and forth from meals/classes and talk about writing, illustrating or publishing. It has an advantage over the biggest conferences because the faculty are more relaxed, not feeling swarmed, so their guards are down. Incredible.
AB: I'm suffering from major conference envy right now. Which seminars were you most looking forward to? Did they meet your expectations?
BJW: I was looking forward to David Gifaldi's presentation on mining your memory with senses (or something like that) because his reputation had preceded him but I'd never met him before. He made the Mark Twain Award Master List too [for One Thing for Sure, Clarion Books, 1986] which pricked up my ears. It was great.
AB: Please share a seed of what you’ve gleaned from each member of the faculty.
BJW: Arthur was already my pal, but I was lucky enough to be the only one to be critiqued by him. He really helped me figure out the spine of my story and gave me great assignment to battle perfectionism.
BJW: Bonny is a story structure whiz. A Visitor For Bear is SOLID. No flaws in that story.
BJW: Suz is another pal. She is a hilarious speaker who used to write for Garrison Keiller. 'Nuff said.
BJW: Marla is also a friend. Inspiring, humble, beautiful, stylish Caldecott Honor winner. Her next book might be better too.
BJW: Thoughtful, generous, writer/teacher. My small group critique leader and a fine writer.
Ann Whitford Paul
BJW: Got her new book, Writing Picture Books! Been hoping she'd do this for a while. Buy it.
Susan Goldman Rubin
BJW: Spunky, spunky, spunky. Smart and loves read.
BJW: Genius who came up with "figuring out your story's spine". How to battle perfectionism. REALLY helpful to me. Funny too.
BJW: Nice, interesting illustrator. I didn't get any of her talks because I was on the writer track.
BJW: Amazing woman. Tenth anniversary conference this year with her at the helm. Great editor, good writer. Old school editor that published Trina Schart Hyman. Yeah.
AB: Here's a perverse fan question: What’s it like to dine with Marla Frazee?
BJW: I have told Marla for years that she is the most stylish artist I have ever seen. She laughs at this because she says her boys would disagree. Marla is a good chewer. She somehow finds a stylish way to eat and talk with grace and a smile. West Coast girl all the way. Pasadena girl all the way.
AB: But seriously, Ben, back to you: What led you to write for young readers?
BJW: I never grew up. And I've been addicted to books since before I could read. You could also say that Sal's fist in the pail of blueberries, Ferdinand the bull smelling the pretty ladies flowers in their hair, and Samwise battling Shelob to protect his master all made me write. My emotions to those images have never faded.
AB: What and/or who has been most helpful to you in developing your craft?
BJW: Arthur Levine, my wife, my family.
AB: What about children's fiction appeals to you?
BJW: Less pretentious. Not so full of crap.
AB: What did you read as a child? (Did you read?)
BJW: Grab a chair, we'll be here for a while. Here's some biggies: Tolkien, James Herriott (or James Alfred Wight in real life), Jim Kjelgaard, Mark Twain and many other things.
AB: What advice do you have for those interested in writing/ illustrating a picture book?
BJW: Join SCBWI. Writing a picture book is like filming an advertisement. You have so little time, every word must matter. Keep it under 700 words (around). Don't give details, suggest them, it is going to be illustrated. You provide the spine of your story, the illustrator will extrapolate and tell their own part of the story. Don't fall in love with just one story. Finish it, then keep writing.
AB: What advice do you wish someone would offer you?
BJW: Get to work. Don't be a perfectionist. Focus on the emotional plot more than the external plot.
AB: What do you do when you're not writing?
BJW: Take Linus [Ben's dog] for walks with or without my cool wife. Watch tons of movies. I love going to the movies. Bike rides.
AB: Do you have a favorite children's/YA book out this year? If so, what makes you like it so much?
BJW: Tough question. I haven't read either yet but will soon, I'm expecting it to be Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan or Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor and Jim DiBartolo (fall 2009 release).
AB: What can your fans look forward to next? What’s in the wings?
BJW: My long suffering novel is coming around, slowly but surely. Some of my critique groups have likened it to Stand By Me, though I wouldn't presume that. Eventually my brother and I are going to do a picture book collaboration about brotherhood.
AB: Thanks so much, Ben!
BJW: Thank you Amy! Lovely town you live in and I enjoy your blog.